One of the key ways that the craft beer world differs from the whiskey or wine industries is that by and large, there aren’t any giant personalities or experts whose beer ratings are capable of having a large effect on a company or the industry as a whole. It’s simply a more egalitarian system, where the masses on BeerAdvocate or Ratebeer together wield the same kind of power—naturally, this comes with its own pitfalls, in terms of groupthink. But the takeaway is that there’s no singular figures who loom large, like say, Robert Parker does in the wine world.
Jim Murray is the same kind of figure in the whiskey industry, and his yearly proclamations on the world’s best whiskey are massively influential as a result. And so, when he chose Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye as the best in the world in 2015, it was something of a shock to many. Here we have a $30 bottle of blended Canadian whiskey that is beating out the entire field from Scotland, Japan and the U.S.A.? That’s not something you see every day.
Crown Royal, unsurprisingly, was overjoyed by the news, and the bottles of Northern Rye have been fairly sought-after ever since. As a top 3 brand the U.S., along with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, Crown Royal was already selling plenty of liquor here—but rarely have they had true critical hype or adoration, beyond making serviceable, easy-drinking products.
Reading all this last year, I made a footnote to eventually taste this rye for myself, and I recently had that opportunity. What I found was an enjoyable, fairly unique whiskey, although certainly not one that one would expect to be proclaimed as a world-beater. It is indeed memorable, however, for how cleanly it presents itself, and for how easy it is to enjoy. Like most Crown products, it’s a blend of many different aged whiskeys, of vastly differing ages and treatments, although 90 percent of the whiskeys in Northern Harvest are rye whiskeys. I realize that’s a bit of a confusing sentence, but there you have it.
On the nose, it’s less expressive in terms of rye spice or baking spices than in most of the American rye that has become so popular in the last five years—let’s simply use Bulleit Rye as an example, as it’s ubiquitous and in the same price range. Rather, it’s a bit more boozy but really shines in terms of fruit impressions—lots of red, berry-like fruitiness that is unexpected but pleasant. It’s a rounder, richer nose than in the Bulleit (I happened to have some on hand to compare), suggestive of a sweeter whiskey, with less spice and more suggestion of vanilla and sugar.
On the palate, the first thing that jumps out is how soft this whiskey is, even at 90 proof, with very little burn of any note, even when being consumed neat. Naturally, this could be seen as a positive or negative, but the simple fact is that this rye is extremely easy to drink, and in quantity. Here, the rye spice asserts itself more prominently, with notes of black pepper and dark rye bread. It’s fruity as well, with green apple and maybe a little bit of lemon citrus. Caramelization is notably lighter than in comparable American ryes such as the Bulleit that I tasted it side-by-side with, but it is notably sweeter. What you have, then, is a lighter type sweetness—less caramelized and chewy, more corny in nature, or light brown sugar.
All in all, we’re left with a very drinkable whiskey that does deliver some solid rye flavors, but is by no means one of the more assertive drams you’re going to run across. Its lightness of body and mouthfeel is the key component that sets it apart from most American rye, and a less brash and bold presentation that is more homogenized (not surprising, with a blend) rather than individualistic.
This is all to say one thing: This is a perfect example of “crowd pleaser” whiskey, as it’s very accessible and approachable. It might even be the sort of dram that could convert someone who has never enjoyed neat whiskey before, or rye whiskeys, owing to its lack of rough edges. If you go out and buy a bottle, have your non-whiskey friends sample a bit. They might be surprised by the result.
Distillery: Crown Royal
Location: Gimli, Canada
Style: Blended rye
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $29.99 suggested retail
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer and whiskey geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink-related content.